Friday

23rd Feb 2018

Feature

South Sudan: Inside Africa's largest refugee crisis

  • Beyond this sign, a ghost town in South Sudan on the border with Uganda. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

A once bustling South Sudan border town with Uganda has fallen into an eerie silence amid a war that has led to the biggest refugee crisis in Africa.

Largely abandoned late last year, Oraba-Kaya is surrounded by hills where rebels are launching attacks on soldiers loyal to the government in South Sudan's capital, Juba.

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  • Mother and child at the Imvepi refugee registration post in Uganda (Photo: Isaac Kasamani)

With the exception of Congolese lorries and a few locals, nothing passes in either direction.

An uniformed Ugandan soldier, stationed at the sleepy border post, told EUobserver last week (11 May) that they are ready should the fighting between the opposing forces spill over.

"They are not our enemies, but we are prepared," he said, pointing in the direction of the South Sudanese government soldiers who can be seen in the town from his post.

Further south in Uganda, settlements of refugees are mushrooming, with close to 1 million people fleeing a civil war as warring factions indiscriminately target civilians from the Dinka and Nuer pastoral groups in South Sudan.

The two rival groups turned on each other after former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer, was dismissed by South Sudanese president Salva Kiir, a Dinka, in late 2013.

The European Commission is funding NGOs and international aid organisations to cope with the crisis, but the scale and swiftness of the arrivals coupled with a drought has left relief efforts struggling.

The EU's efforts for South Sudan's refugees are part of a wider attempt to address the root causes of African migration into Europe.

The fighting flared up and spread last July, with talk now emerging of ethnic cleansing and an encroaching genocide.

"You are fighting a war where you are not targeting the fighters, you are targeting someone different from you, so that is why they started talking about genocide. It is a dirty war," said one head aid worker from the Italian NGO, ACAV.

The hatred has extended into at least one of the refugee settlements where the Dinka and Nuer are kept apart, despite initial attempts to group them, out of fear of revenge attacks and reprisals.

World's largest refugee camp

The vast majority of refugees are women and children, with over a quarter of a million people ending up at the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, the world's largest, near the town of Yumbe in northern Uganda.

Local Ugandan authorities and aid organisations had been struggling to keep up with an average daily arrival of some 2,000, before diverting people to other settlements.

Among the throngs in Bidi Bidi is 18-year old Gladus who said the Dinkas were slaughtering people in her village in South Sudan's Lainya county.

"We were sleeping in the bush for six months before we came here," she said.

Stella Yunimgba, a 26-year old refugee who is also working for Save the Children, an NGO, recounted a similar story. "The Dinkas come in at night, cut people and kids and throw them into the river," she said.

A 30-year old primary school teacher and refugee, also from Lainya county, said people are being hacked to death with machetes.

"This time they do not use guns, they use pangas [machetes]. They don't waste their bullets."

Bidi Bidi. (Photo: Isaac Kasamani)

Others recount similar stories of horror in an increasingly sectarian conflict that has displaced millions, and have also seen attacks launched against UN peacekeepers.

The relief effort for the whole of Uganda requires just under €1 billion for the rest of the year, but aid groups have received only 10 percent of that sum.

Free land but no rain

An ongoing drought during the rainy season has only made matters worse, with some fleeing South Sudan simply to escape hunger.

But the lack of rain is also affecting the refugees, who are largely unable to grow food on the small 30-metre by 30-metre plots of land doled out by the Ugandan government.

The Ugandan government is maintaining an open door refugee policy and is also giving people plots of land to cultivate. Over 60,000 km2 has been handed out in Bidi Bidi alone, with the blessing of local communities who themselves are facing abject poverty.

"The [refugee] policy of Uganda has always been 'let them in'," the EU's ambassador to Uganda, Kristian Schmidt, told reporters in Kampala.

The large exodus into Bidi Bidi means people are also now being diverted to other smaller settlements around the country, in an effort to cope with the flows.

"Bidi Bidi could become the second or third largest city in the country," said one EU official.

In the Kiryandongo settlement in central Uganda, parents are forced to watch their crops slowly wither and die in the heat of the blazing sun, while their children face malnutrition given the insufficient funding from international donors to organisations like the UN's World Food Programme.

"We are still hungry, we are still sick," said Mary Awel Ajok, a 34-year old mother in Kiryandongo. Her three children were recently hospitalised due to starvation.

Aid agencies are tasked with providing services, despite insufficient funding to both the locals and refugees given Uganda's inability to guarantee even electricity to a regional hospital.

The EU commission has already pumped around €11 million into Bidi Bidi for this year and is helping to finance traineeship projects in the region for the locals, but the scope of the problem is too vast.

Around 80 percent of the youth in Uganda are unemployed and the population is projected to increase from 39 million to 130 million by 2050.

Northern Uganda is also scarred by the Lord Resistance Army, a guerrilla group run by the elusive Joseph Kony, who has since gone into hiding. The region is reeling from the brutal legacy of Uganda's former dictator, Idi Amin, who left entire swathes of the population traumatised.

Gender violence against women

Despite the setbacks, people are rushing across the border with no end in sight to the conflict in South Sudan, a nation that gained its independence from the rest of Sudan in 2011.

Among them is 16-year-old Mary Akjuao, who had walked three days to reach the Ugandan border from her village in Yei county.

"Young boys not in uniform tried to rape me, but I was rescued by a group of women on the South Sudan side," she said.

Mary Akjuao. (Photo: Isaac Kasamani)

Akjuao, who speaks with a quiet voice, said she had hidden in the bush for over a week with her grandmother before making it to the Busia refugee collection point on the border, where a bus then drove her to the Imvepi settlement just south of Bidi Bidi.

Akjuao had witnessed a heavily pregnant woman die giving birth along on the way. The baby also perished, she said.

"My grandmother does not know I am here," Akjuao says before trailing off in silence.

Akjuao is a victim twice over. Sexual assault is stigmatised among the community, forcing the 16-year-old to live apart from her peers in the settlement. Akjuao is being looked after by the relief agency Care, "to overcome the shame of gender based-violence," according to one volunteer.

Buses full of people are said to be arriving at Imvepi settlement, which opened in late February, every 20 minutes on some days.

Its reception centre is choked with people as aid workers carefully shuffle them through a well-organised medical screening and registration process.

"This is a challenge for Uganda and we are having to pay the bill and the US is not chipping in right now," said a Gregory Brady, an American aid worker from Care.

Uganda's generous refugee policy

Fears are now mounting that Kampala may reconsider its open policy and start turning refugees away, forcing people to seek other options further north.

In 2006, it had passed one of the world's most progressive refugee laws, giving people the right to work and allowing freedom of movement.

But the EU's ambassador to Uganda, Kristian Schmidt, warned the country's model is not sustainable.

"If Uganda decided to close the border, where would these people go? Obviously some of them would go north, obviously some of them would fall into the hands of smugglers and traffickers," he said.

Suggestions that some may attempt to venture Libya and then cross the sea to reach Italy appear far-fetched given the extreme poverty most people face.

The EU has earmarked some €200 million for projects around north Africa to stop people from leaving Libya on boats towards Europe.

More and more emphasis and policy is now being geared towards Europe's southern neighbours, with an EU-Africa summit set for November.

The EU has, for the moment, placed special emphasis on securing broad migration deals with Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, and Ethiopia. But the programmes, launched last year, have so far produced few results - with other similar deals unlikely in the near future.

"Europe's security and prosperity depends heavily on what is happening in Africa and with our relations with that continent," a senior EU official told reporters in Brussels earlier this month.

But the nascent country's decent into chaos and the lack of funding to address the humanitarian crisis means that the lesser developed nations, like Uganda, are having to shoulder the bulk of the burden.

"We [Europe] are struggling with a few hundred thousand refugees from Syria, to relocate them, to let them in, and here Uganda, a least developed country, is hosting 1.2 million," said Schmidt.

Opinion

Development serving the purpose of migration control

While the EU is sacrificing development aid to serve short-term migration interests, it is important to realise that enhanced border controls will not solve the root causes of forced migration and displacement.

EU wary over Ukraine weapons in South Sudan

Ukraine, which had signed an EU arms embargo on South Sudan, has since sold attack helicopters used by the government forces in Juba against civilians and hospitals.

Opinion

EU must put Sudan under microscope at Africa summit

The EU is throwing a lot of money at Sudan to manage migration from the Horn of Africa to Europe - but the upcoming Africa Union-EU summit is a chance to probe Sudan about its own human rights record.

Frontex naval operation to look for 'foreign fighters'

The EU border and coast guard agency, or Frontex, has launched a new naval operation called Themis. The operation replaces its surveillance Triton mission but with a bigger emphasis on security and intelligence gathering.

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